ABC anchor Leigh Sales has grilled former prime minister John Howard on why locals, who worked with Australian forces in Afghanistan, have not all yet been evacuated.
Mr Howard, who first sent Australian forces to the country — was left dumbfounded by the 7:30 host’s question, accusing her of making a “completely unfair generalisation”.
Sales explained Australia is at a last-minute scramble trying to evacuate local citizens, before asking the ex-leader: “Why would anyone ever again put their life at risk to assist Australian forces when they see the low priority they’ve been afforded in return?”
So far hundreds, largely interpreters, have already been brought to Australia, but many more remain in Afghanistan and fear brutal Taliban reprisals.
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Mr Howard said it was wrong to imply the Morrison government had not been trying after Sales asked if the seemingly “low priority” on these evacuations would hurt Australia’s capacity to source local help in future conflicts.
“I think you’re making a judgment that can’t be justified on the known facts,” Mr Howard hit back, before adding, “you’re implying that the government is not trying.”
Sales quickly intercepted to say the “government has had 20 years to evacuate those people,” before a confused Mr Howard looked for further clarification.
“I thought your question was about the attempts to pull people out now who have been working with us?”
“It is,” she said. “The question is about locals who have assisted Australian forces over the years who are now being scrambled out in the final 11th hour.”
Mr Howard said a “number of those” people have already returned to Australia and five years ago, not all would have wanted to come home. He said it is because they may have thought their best interest was served in state.
“You’re making just a completely unfair generalisation about the behaviour of the government,” Mr Howard responded.
However, the fiery exchange continued with Sales asking — “Shouldn’t we have been able to get out every person who worked with Australian forces out of that country; who would want to be staying in that country now?”
The former prime minister, who was among the first world leaders to pledge military support for the US-led campaign in 2001, said it was “far too early” to make a judgment about how the government has fallen short.
“The government, right at the moment, is involved in an air lift operation because there’s no doubt the collapse of the opposition of the Taliban has been very rapid,” he said.
Mr Howard went on to admit the US withdrawal was “too hasty”.
“I think it could have been possible to have had a more orderly withdrawal,” he said.
“But we had to deal, obviously, with the situation that we faced (at that time). And I think it is quite unfair on the government to suggest we haven’t even bothered to help any of the people who’ve helped us.”
He also defended the “mission”, telling Sales it was not a failure because it stopped further 9/11-style attacks on the West being launched from Afghanistan.
He said he could “understand the argument” that the war had been a failure because al-Qaida operatives were still active in the country, but said he did not “totally” agree.
“There are undoubtedly elements of al-Qaida still in Afghanistan. And the Taliban … which, on occasions, is completely indistinguishable from al-Qaida, is a very potent force,” Mr Howard said.
“But the truth is that the great fear of the United States and Australia and the West after September 11 — that there would be other attacks orchestrated out of Afghanistan — that has not materialised.
“So on that criterion, the mission, whatever may be said of it, has not been a failure.”
Mr Howard said his message to the families of veterans who had been killed in service, or suffered after returning home, was that their country was “proud” of them.
He said no Australian ever died in vain in war, because Australia always fought for “noble” objectives.